Replication of MERS and SARS Coronaviruses in Bat Cells Offers Insights to Their Ancestral Origins

Emerg Microbes Infect. 2018 Dec 10;7(1):209. doi: 10.1038/s41426-018-0208-9.


Previous findings of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV)-related viruses in bats, and the ability of Tylonycteris-BatCoV HKU4 spike protein to utilize MERS-CoV receptor, human dipeptidyl peptidase 4 hDPP4, suggest a bat ancestral origin of MERS-CoV. We developed 12 primary bat cell lines from seven bat species, including Tylonycteris pachypus, Pipistrellus abramus and Rhinolophus sinicus (hosts of Tylonycteris-BatCoV HKU4, Pipistrellus-BatCoV HKU5, and SARS-related-CoV respectively), and tested their susceptibilities to MERS-CoVs, SARS-CoV, and human coronavirus 229E (HCoV-229E). Five cell lines, including P. abramus and R. sinicus but not T. pachypus cells, were susceptible to human MERS-CoV EMC/2012. However, three tested camel MERS-CoV strains showed different infectivities, with only two strains capable of infecting three and one cell lines respectively. SARS-CoV can only replicate in R. sinicus cells, while HCoV-229E cannot replicate in any bat cells. Bat dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP4) sequences were closely related to those of human and non-human primates but distinct from dromedary DPP4 sequence. Critical residues for binding to MERS-CoV spike protein were mostly conserved in bat DPP4. DPP4 was expressed in the five bat cells susceptible to MERS-CoV, with significantly higher mRNA expression levels than those in non-susceptible cells (P = 0.0174), supporting that DPP4 expression is critical for MERS-CoV infection in bats. However, overexpression of T. pachypus DPP4 failed to confer MERS-CoV susceptibility in T. pachypus cells, suggesting other cellular factors in determining viral replication. The broad cellular tropism of MERS-CoV should prompt further exploration of host diversity of related viruses to identify its ancestral origin.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Camelus
  • Cell Line
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Chiroptera / virology*
  • Dipeptidyl Peptidase 4 / genetics
  • Humans
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus / genetics
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus / physiology*
  • Phylogeny
  • Primates
  • SARS Virus / genetics
  • SARS Virus / physiology*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism
  • Viral Tropism
  • Virus Attachment
  • Virus Replication*


  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • Dipeptidyl Peptidase 4